The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD) can seriously affect a senior’s ability to complete activities of daily living (ADLs) safely and independently. For decades, researchers have striven to discover new therapies and treatments that can help manage or even prevent these frustrations for individuals living with PD. Surprisingly, one option shows great promise for symptom management, but it is not a prescription medication or a surgical procedure. The breakthrough therapy is simple physical exercise.
The Benefits of Combining Medical Care and the Arts
Emily Pozek, dancer in residence at University of Florida Health and adjunct professor at the UF School of Theatre and Dance, has been sharing her enthusiasm for the arts with Parkinson’s patients since 2009, when a program for local seniors with PD called Dance for Life began in Gainesville, Florida.
“I always knew that I wanted to go to school, and I loved dance,” Pozek says. “I really found a passion for this idea to share dance with multiple communities and explore what movement can bring to people.”
Pozek is part of The Center for Arts in Medicine, a unique program at the University of Florida (UF) that incorporates the practice of fine arts into typically sterile health care environments to promote healing and well-being. Dance for Life is a collaboration between various departments at UF, including the Movement Disorders Center, the School of Theatre and Dance (SoTD) and the Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory. Through this interdisciplinary approach, medical researchers and professional and student dancers have been able to study the effects of exercise on PD symptoms and provide participants with support, socialization and therapeutic techniques that improve their quality of life.
Dancing for Relief from PD Symptoms
Dance for Life is an affiliate of the original Dance for PD program based in New York City. Now a worldwide initiative, Dance for PD first began in 2001 as a small collaboration between the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Designed to make PD support groups more enjoyable and engaging, this novel approach to symptom management helps patients improve balance, cognition, motor skills and physical confidence with the guidance of professional dance instructors.
Pozek’s classes have provided individuals diagnosed with PD (and their significant others and primary caregivers) with a myriad of benefits. Whereas traditional support groups can be depressing at times, laughter is common during her sessions, helping to foster a supportive and upbeat environment. Several of Pozek’s members have been coming to these classes for years, and many of them make a point of attending all three classes offered each week.
“The interesting thing about PD is that it presents a little differently in each person,” Pozek notes. “The commonalities are usually tremors and freezing, but, amazingly, people with PD don’t experience these symptoms while dancing.”
One of her dancers, J.C., has attended Dance for Life classes for about two years. “It helps a lot and addresses lots of muscle groups,” he says. J.C. also enjoys the eclectic and ever-changing nature of Pozek’s classes. Although there are fundamental elements of these sessions that remain constant over the years, she has shaken things up and introduced her participants to several dance styles and techniques, including classical ballet barre work, modern, social partner dances and tap.
Interestingly, most of the men and women in Pozek’s classes have no previous dance experience, but this does not prevent her from leading a professional-quality class. “A really important aspect of Dance for Life is that we’re not dumbing it down,” Pozek explains. “There is no teaching down to the participants.”
A Typical Dance for PD Class
Each class begins with Pozek and her dancers seated and facing each other in a large circle of chairs. Participants work through various chair exercises meant to aid in shoulder and limb mobility and strengthen core muscles. This unique warm up borrows moves from the dance world (mostly the modern approach) and connects them to movements in everyday life. Learning and practicing these combinations of thought and movement greatly aids in strengthening the motions used to perform activities of daily living, which is a focal point in exercise and therapy efforts for patients with PD.
One such movement that Pozek uses frequently is a routine designed to help her dancers develop the strength and confidence to easily move from a seated to a standing position. These routines improve gait speed, balance and range of motion in a fun and interactive way that is different from run-of-the-mill physical and occupational therapy sessions.
Dance is unique in that it enables each participant to enhance awareness of their own body and allow their creativity to flow freely in a social setting. Movement not only improves physical coordination, but it also improves participants’ confidence and self-esteem. Several University of Florida student volunteers with an array of different academic backgrounds also help Pozek run these classes, adding a valuable intergenerational aspect to the experience.
The musical accompaniment for these classes is always changing, too. Pozek is open to suggestions from her dancers and plays everything from Motown and WWII-era hits to current pop singles. Dance combinations and choreography are constantly evolving along with the music, ensuring that her dancers never grow bored of repeating the same exercises class after class.
As each 75-minute session comes to a close, Pozek ends on a heartfelt note by “passing the pulse.” She and her dancers join hands in a circle once more, and a slight hand squeeze accompanied by meaningful eye contact is passed around the circle from person to person until the pulse has traveled through the whole group.
“It’s a beautiful moment,” Pozek reflects. “Not only have we shared this class together, but we are here as a community supporting one another.”
Finding a Therapeutic Exercise Class for PD
Dance for PD is growing in popularity and classes are available in more than 100 communities throughout 20 countries. While instructors and classes may vary, this program is a valuable source of recreational and therapeutic exercise. If there isn’t an established affiliate in your area, the Dance for PD organization offers three volumes of adaptable classes on DVD that seniors can do in their own homes.
More than 35 peer-reviewed studies have proven the benefits of dance for those living with PD. It’s important for individuals with Parkinson’s disease to be proactive about their health and participate in some sort of physical activity, whether it is dancing, yoga, tai chi or taking a daily walk around the neighborhood.
For more information or to find a Dance for PD class near you, visit www.danceforparkinsons.org.